Less than one month away from the opening of the 2012 NFL season, the intrigue for professional football is certainly building.
While fans of each individual team are certainly most intrigued by the prospects of their own team’s success, there are some teams that have greater league-wide appeal based on their potential for championship success, uncertainty surrounding the dynamics of their team or new additions that could take their team to the next level.
The following 15 slides take a look at the teams who fans league-wide should be most intrigued by heading into a new year of NFL football.
Less than one month away from the opening of the 2012 NFL season, the intrigue for professional football is certainly building.
Robert Griffin III (left) and Andrew Luck
Neither the Indianapolis Colts, Washington Redskins nor Cleveland Browns are likely to be contenders this upcoming season, but they all have something in common that will have fans across the league interested in them: rookie starting quarterbacks.
2012 is not likely to be the season that Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III or Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden lead their new team to the postseason. All three quarterbacks, however, were first-round draft picks, and there will be expectations on each of them right away to get their new franchises headed in the right direction.
Luck and RG3 were the top two selections in the 2012 NFL draft, and both are expected to be superstars. They should make immediate impacts for their new teams, but they do not yet have enough talent around them to make a serious playoff run.
As for Weeden, he is part of a strong influx of new offensive talent in Cleveland, including running back Trent Richardson, wide receiver Josh Gordon and right tackle Mitchell Schwartz, all of whom were selected in the first two rounds of either the regular or supplemental draft this year.
The Browns, however, are mired at the bottom of a strong division featuring three Super Bowl contenders, and this is unlikely to be the season they move up the ladder of the AFC North.
The Buffalo Bills made one of the biggest acquisitions of the offseason with the free-agent signing of defensive end Mario Williams. Along with fellow free-agent signing Mark Anderson, the Bills added two premier pass-rushers this offseason, adding them to a growing core of young defensive talent that has hype building about the Bills becoming a contender this season.
Combined with defensive tackles Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams, the Bills’ defensive line has the potential to be dominant. The Bills also made a big addition in the secondary with the No. 10 overall pick, cornerback Stephon Gilmore, while their offense features a dynamic running back duo of Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller.
Are the Bills a serious contender to make a move up in the AFC East and contend for a playoff spot? They still may only be the third-best team in their division, but their new additions have people talking about the potential for the Bills to make their first playoff appearance since 1999.
Wide receiver Greg Jennings (left) and Aaron Rodgers
Through 13 games last season, the Green Bay Packers were undefeated, and had set themselves apart from the rest of the NFL as the league’s best team. The season came to a disappointing end, however, as their 15-1 regular season led to a loss in their first playoff game to the New York Giants, the eventual Super Bowl champions.
What the Packers proved last season, however, is that they are a force to be reckoned with in the National Football League, and their entire core from last season is back in 2012. That core, of course, is led by quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who was the 2011 NFL MVP after breaking the single-season passer rating record last year.
The Packers should go into the season among the favorites to win Super Bowl XLVII, after having the best regular-season record in 2011, and carrying one of the most complete and talented rosters in the entire league.
The 2011 season was a very positive one for the Lions, making the playoffs for the first time since 1999. The 2012 offseason, however, has not been kind to the Lions, whose players led an arrest-laden offseason for the NFL with seven total arrests.
Two of those players, cornerback Aaron Berry and offensive tackle Johnny Culbreath, have since been released, but the Lions must move on from the offseason’s negative stigma to make it back to the postseason this year. The team’s newfound success last season, combined with the status as the “new Cincinnati Bengals” this offseason, has created intrigue among fans wondering which direction they will be headed this year.
Adding to the intrigue, of course, is strong-armed quarterback Matt Stafford and the wide receiver often simply known as “Megatron,” also known as Calvin Johnson. The Lions are a talented team who proved they could finally contend in the NFC North last season, but must be on top of their game in a challenging division that also includes the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears, two other major NFC contenders.
Tarvaris Jackson (left), Russell Wilson and Matt Flynn
Bringing in free-agent quarterback Matt Flynn to be the new starter would have created intrigue enough. Drafting Russell Wilson in the third round, then opening up the starting quarterback job to a three-way open competition with incumbent Tarvaris Jackson? That certainly garners attention.
Flynn appears to be the favorite to eventually earn the starting job, as he was named on Tuesday as the starter for the team’s first preseason game. The battle is far from over, but the expectation of Flynn becoming the starter certainly creates intrigue as to how well he can do as a first-time starter.
Adding to the intrigue has been the team’s recent additions of Braylon Edwards and Terrell Owens at wide receiver, as the Seahawks are clearly looking for more impact in their passing game. Both Edwards and Owens are dangerous deep threat receivers with immense talent, but both have had their issues which make it surprising that either is currently on an NFL roster.
The Seahawks have one of the NFL’s elite secondaries and have talent all over, but how the newcomers, which also include first-round pick defensive end Bruce Irvin and free-agent addition defensive tackle Jason Jones, fit in will determine whether they are able to make a playoff push.
More and more, the Seahawks are looking like a fun team to watch in the upcoming season.
The New England Patriots are defending AFC champions and will certainly go into the season as favorites to defend their conference title. The Patriots, per usual, have an offense loaded with talent, while they made a serious effort this offseason to improve their defense, which struggled last season.
The Patriots’ passing offense, on paper, looks like the best in the National Football League. They are led by legendary quarterback Tom Brady, and are loaded with receiving weapons including Wes Welker, who led the NFL in receptions last season, two star tight ends in Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, and a newcomer, Brandon Lloyd, who could be the deep threat wideout the Patriots were missing last season.
Defensively, the Patriots traded up twice in Round 1 to add defensive end Chandler Jones and linebacker Dont’a Hightower, whose ability to contribute as rookies will play a huge role in whether the Patriots can go one step further than last year and win the Super Bowl.
Rob Gronkowski’s off-field antics add to the fun, but for the Patriots, the intrigue surrounding them will have everything to do with whether they can be league champions.
Incredibly, even though the New York Giants are coming off of their second Super Bowl title in five years, they are receiving less attention heading into the 2012 NFL season than the other team in their city (spoiler alert). That said, there should be no shortage of intrigue around the Giants in their effort to become the first team since the 2004 New England Patriots to defend the Super Bowl title.
Last season, quarterback Eli Manning proved that he is an elite NFL quarterback, en route to winning his second Super Bowl and Super Bowl MVP as the Giants’ starter. He is surrounded by a tremendously talented supporting cast, both on offense and defense, that makes the Giants a favorite to win the championship once again.
There will be intrigue surrounding the health of wide receiver Hakeem Nicks, as he is recovering from a broken foot, while fellow wideout Victor Cruz broke out as a star last season. Defensively, the Giants are led by what may be the best pair of starting defensive ends in the NFL, Jason Pierre-Paul and Justin Tuck.
The Giants are currently the champions of the NFL, and until they are beaten by anyone, they remain atop the food chain of the league.
No team has made headlines for all the wrong reasons this offseason the way the New Orleans Saints have. The Saints were found to have a bounty system which paid players for hits that injured other players, and as a result, the NFL came down with heavy penalties, including year-long suspensions for head coach Sean Payton and middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma.
Even with the tumultuous offseason, they remain major NFC contenders if they can manage to play up to their ability even without their head coach. On the field, the Saints remain led by quarterback Drew Brees, who set the NFL’s single-season passing record in 2011, and as long as he is under center, the Saints should have one of the NFL’s best offenses.
The intrigue surrounding the Saints has certainly been heightened by their scandalous offseason, but will also be around Brees, who received a contract with $60 million in guaranteed money this offseason, and whether he can break the passing record again while taking true leadership without the team’s head coach on the sidelines.
Tim Tebow (left) and Mark Sanchez
The Jets have the most-hyped two-quarterback situation since Steve Young backed up Joe Montana, as a result of their offseason acquisition of the immensely popular Tim Tebow to back up starting quarterback Mark Sanchez.
The Jets also have a starting cornerback, Antonio Cromartie, who believes he is the team’s second-best wide receiver, and a head coach, Rex Ryan, who is known for creating controversy with his comments to the media. This week, the Jets have also been making headlines for fighting in training camp, another sign that the Jets could have some serious locker room problems.
The massive intrigue surrounding the Jets, however, is whether the team will eventually replace Sanchez with Tebow if the incumbent starter struggles, along with whether the team will be divided among those who think Sanchez should start and those who think Tebow should be the team’s quarterback.
Most importantly, it will be intriguing to see whether the Jets can return to the playoffs, coming off of a disappointing 8-8 season.
The Jets have many great talents on both sides of the ball, but also some significantly questionable areas including at wide receiver, defensive end and safety, and they must step up their performance to contend with the New England Patriots in the AFC East.
Prior to last season, I projected the Cincinnati Bengals would have the NFL’s worst record, and would regret that year’s second-round draft selection of quarterback Andy Dalton. I was very wrong.
Dalton and the team’s first-round pick, wide receiver A.J. Green, proved to immediately be one of the best passing combinations in the AFC, and the Bengals earned a postseason berth. Now, the Bengals are an emerging young team, and it remains unknown how good they can actually be this season.
The Bengals are loaded with young talent on both sides of the ball, including a very strong incoming draft class led by two first-round draft picks, cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick and guard Kevin Zeitler.
If the Bengals could be as good as they were last year, with a rookie quarterback and very low expectations, winning the AFC North is a real possibility this season, even in a division that includes two perennial conference powers in the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers.
Through 10 games last season, it appeared that it could finally be the year for the Houston Texans to make a big postseason run. The Texans’ record was tied for best in the AFC, and were having their best season ever.
Unfortunately, that was the week that the Texans received very bad news: starting quarterback Matt Schaub was out for the season. The Texans still won the AFC South, earned their first-ever playoff berth and defeated the Bengals in the wild-card round of the playoffs, but with rookie T.J. Yates starting, they did not have a realistic chance at making a Super Bowl run.
The healthy return of Schaub, one of the NFL’s best pocket passers, make the Texans major Super Bowl contenders this season. If the Texans could make the second round of the playoffs with an unproven rookie, the expectations should certainly be higher with Schaub back in the fold.
The Texans’ offense should be better next year, with a healthy Schaub re-joining forces with the team’s two superstars, running back Arian Foster and wide receiver Andre Johnson, but the Texans proved to be a defensive team last year, ranking second in the NFL in total defense.
The Texans did lose two of their defensive stars this offseason, defensive end Mario Williams and inside linebacker DeMeco Ryans, but they played most of last season without Williams while Ryans was not at his best as he was recovering from a torn Achilles. The Texans still have a tremendously talented defense, led by defensive end J.J. Watt and cornerback Johnathan Joseph.
With the NFL’s newest team now having 10 seasons behind them, the 11th year could be the time for them to make their first AFC Championship Game.
On this same ranking last season, the Philadelphia Eagles would have been No. 1, after an offseason full of high-profile free-agent acquisitions and backup quarterback Vince Young declaring the Eagles to be a “dream team.”
Coming off of a disappointing 8-8 season, the Eagles are no longer the league’s most discussed team, but there is much reason to expect that the Eagles will have a much better season in 2012. The Eagles finished last season on a four-game winning streak, and have a team loaded with talent on both sides of the ball that makes them legitimate Super Bowl contenders.
With one of the league’s most dynamic but also inconsistent quarterbacks in dual-threat Michael Vick, the Eagles are always one of the league’s most unpredictable and dangerous teams. Vick, however, is far from the only dynamic offensive player on a team that also includes running back LeSean McCoy and wide receiver DeSean Jackson.
The defensive additions that the Eagles made last season, however, are what were expected to make them a major contender. Defensive end Jason Babin, a second-team All-Pro last year, lived up to the hype, but cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha and defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins did not.
The Eagles made more major defensive additions this year, however, with the first- and second-round draft picks of defensive tackle Fletcher Cox and outside linebacker Mychal Kendricks, and the trade for middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans. If all three of them can make immediate contributions, and Asomugha and Jenkins bounce back, the Eagles could become a serious force to be reckoned with.
The San Francisco 49ers are absolutely among the top favorites for Super Bowl XLVII, coming off of a remarkable turnaround season in 2011. Last year, quarterback Alex Smith finally lived up to his potential with a strong season under first-year head coach Jim Harbaugh, pairing with a superstar-studded defense to lead the 49ers to a 13-3 season and a berth in the NFC Championship Game.
The 49ers’ offense made major strides last year under Harbaugh, but the defense is what makes them great. The defense had three first-team defensive All-Pros last season—defensive end Justin Smith and inside linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman—and have numerous other stars on the unit including pass-rusher Aldon Smith, cornerback Carlos Rogers and free safety Dashon Goldson.
The 49ers did make some high-profile additions, however, that should make them a more explosive offense.
After a one-year hiatus, wide receiver Randy Moss has returned to the NFL to play for the 49ers, while the team also added free agent Mario Manningham and first-round draft pick A.J. Jenkins at the position. The 49ers also added a fast, elusive running back in second-round pick LaMichael James, who should pair with Frank Gore to give them one of the NFL’s best running back combinations.
Without ever having a full offseason to work with his team due to last year’s lockout, Harbaugh took the 49ers from a 6-10 team in 2010 to an NFC Championship Game berth last year. With a full offseason to work together this year, can Harbaugh’s 49ers go all the way to a title?
It did not take long for Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton to become an NFL superstar. Newton rewrote the rookie record books last season, setting records for most passing yards, most rushing touchdowns and most total touchdowns for a first-year quarterback.
With Newton leading the way, the Panthers made a step in the right direction last season, but if Newton avoids a sophomore slump, his ability to take over games makes the Panthers a serious playoff contender. Newton may have already surpassed Eagles quarterback Michael Vick as the NFL’s best dual-threat quarterback, and fans of all 32 teams will be watching with intrigue to see just how good he can be this year.
The Panthers’ star center, Ryan Kalil, already added fuel to the fire of the Panthers taking a big step in 2012, by taking out a full-page ad in the Charlotte Observer stating that his team “will win Super Bowl XLVII.”
The Panthers still many questionable areas among their personnel, including the right side of their offensive line, defensive tackle and the secondary. But while expecting a Super Bowl title may be setting the bar too high for the Panthers’ 2012 season, there is reason to believe they can make it back to the playoffs with Newton at the helm.
After missing the entire 2011 season, future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning will be starting in the NFL this season, and it will not be for the Indianapolis Colts, the team he had spent every year of his career with until now. This year, Manning will be starting for the Denver Broncos, a team that made the playoffs without him last year.
The Broncos won the AFC West and their Wild Card playoff game last season, but while Tim Tebow had a very successful season as their starter, the addition of Manning absolutely makes them better. While that does not necessarily mean they will make a farther run than they did last year, expectations are high in Denver with good reason.
Of course, Manning’s health is still questionable. Until he takes his first big hit in game action and gets up without a hitch, it cannot be completely certain that he had a full recovery from his neck injury. If he is healthy, however, the Broncos have added one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL to a playoff team, creating limitless possibility for the 2012 season.
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Dan Hope is an NFL draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @Dan_Hope.